90. Book Review # 7: “Leading Leaders. Empowering Church Boards for Ministry Excellence” by Aubrey Malphurs.

Leading Leaders is the third book  in the trilogy on church leadership produced by Aubrey Malphurs (published by Baker Books in 2005), professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. He claims in his introduction that “Leading Leaders presents a new paradigm for board leadership” (8). In essence it is the application of principles developed by John Carver for nonprofit governing boards, but Malphurs hastens to add that “most important, this book is based on Scripture” (8). The book is equally divided between twelve chapters that discuss church board leadership and fourteen appendices that provide sample policies.

At the outset I would recommend Malphurs book for church board chairs who desire to understand how the principles of board governance developed by John Carver can be translated into the context and culture of a local church. Malphurs does not follow Carver’s principles in every respect, but does bring clarity to the functions of the board within the Carver framework when applied within a local congregation. The sample policies in the appendices are very helpful.

Malphurs is adamant that church boards “are potentially the leaders of leaders. In fact it is likely that they are the key to the revitalization of the church in the twenty-first century” (13). Not all would agree with this proposition, particularly those who see the hope of the church to reside in emerging pastoral leadership. Malphurs is critical of those “who are at the leading edge of thinking about church leadership” and who “appear to have missed this obvious but critical point” (13). In his first chapter entitled “Who is Leading the Churches?: Observations of Board Leadership” (11-22) he defines various, serious difficulties that plague church boards. The solution he proposes to all of these is  that church leaders have to discern proper church board functions, develop and embrace better board processes, educate and train board members to govern well, and recruit capable, qualified people to serve as board members (21). Few would disagree. At the heart of this change, in his view, is a new paradigm. As he articulates in chapter 8 “The effective board operates by using a policies governance model” (81).

Chapters 2-6 lay out reasons why churches have boards, the compatibility of this with Scriptural principles, and what Scripture has to say about board accountability, composition and qualifications. Within chapters 3 & 4 he discusses the implications of various church polity systems for the way in which a church board understands its role and authority, particularly its accountability. Malphurs regards the elder-led church or the congregation-led church as polities that are most compatible with Scripture.

Malphurs defines a governing board “as a gathering of two or more wise, spiritually qualified leaders who have been entrusted with authority to use their power to direct the affairs of the church” (23-24). Of course, who has the power to vest such authority in church boards is a major question. Smaller boards (less than ten members) are preferred. Scripture gives considerable flexibility when it comes to defining the nature of a governing board, empowering it and determining what it will do (36). Senior pastors come and go but the lay leaders who form the board provide the continuity of leadership within the local church. They are “the keepers, promoters and monitors of the mission and vision of the church, assuring the effectiveness and continuance of the ministry” (41). A spiritually healthy board will work together as a team, act with courage, trust and respect one another, and deal effectively with disagreements (55-59).

For Malphurs an effective church board focuses upon four functions: praying, monitoring, deciding, and advising. In his view “the board must pray for for the congregation, the pastoral staff, and themselves” (66). Malphurs equates monitoring with “overseeing” and church boards should monitor “the church and the senior pastor, focusing specifically on the church’s spiritual condition, theology, and ministry direction” (67).  “Ministry direction” includes the mission and vision of the church (69). Malphurs is also clear that “the board is responsible for overseeing the pastor’s leadership and ministry, and he is responsible to the board for that ministry”  (70). The board has to make decisions and “must decide how it will make decisions” (70).  The board also serves to advise the pastor and staff, but Malphurs is quick to point out that “it’s not imperative that the pastor follow the board’s advice; [he] has a choice” (71). These functions fit well within the contraints of Scripture and contemporary legal requirements (65). However, not all of these functions will be addressed equally at all times. External circumstances will dictate which may require particular attention. He criticizes boards that are rubber stamps, who focus on being “guardians of the gate,” who desire peace at any price, who function as a group of advocates for various causes, and who get absorbed in micromanagement (63-64).

Malphurs identifies several other occasional board functions. These include selecting the senior pastor; arbitrating disputes, protecting the pastor, and ordaining and licensing for ministry.

In chapters 8-11 Malphurs explains the paradigm of policies governance, its implications for the board and pastor, and how it might be implemented. He defines policies “as the beliefs and values that consistently guide or direct how a church or parachurch governing board makes its decisions” (82). This is similar to John Carver’s description of policy as “frameworks of values and perspectives [that] determine specific decisions and behaviors in the face of specific facts” (Boards That Make a Difference, 23). “Values dominate policies that are instructive to staff — that is policies that tell staff what to do or not to do. Perspectives dominate the policies that codify the board’s own process and relationships” (John Carver, Boards That Make a Difference, 24). I wonder whether Malphurs’ definition misses an important element in Carver’s definition, namely that policies will explain why a board governors as it does, not just the how. Board policy then needs to include the agency’s mission, vision and ends so that the board knows why it is making a specific decision. For some reason Malphurs (85-86) suggests that where the board already “very clearly has addressed the church’s direction and regularly monitors it” it may not need a policy that defines mission, vision and ends. I would suggest that if the mission and vision are already defined with some sense of ends, then incorporating it into policy would be a simple, but vital action that grounds all other policies the board may subsequently develop.

Malphurs argues for a second distinction from Carver’s principles. Instead of developing policies for the role of the senior pastor that define the limits of his authority, the board “may set policies that both permit and prohibit what the board or the senior pastor can do” (86). The basis for his deviation from Carver’s principles in this matter is that the Scripture in his view prescribe a pastor’s ministry. These include “protecting it from false doctrines (Acts 20:28), teaching it the Scriptures (1 TImothy 5:17; and directing its activities (1 TImothy 5:17), including the supervision of all staff” (95). However, I would suggest that wording such as “the senior pastor shall not fail to….” could be used in policies that define the limits of his role and the expectations that the board establishes for his ministry. Malphurs outlines the potential benefits of adopting a policies governance approach on pages 84-85.

In the development of policies Malphurs says that the board “describes how it transfers a large portion of its authority to the senior pastor” (97). There is a delegation of responsibility with appropriate authority to be exercised within specific limitations. However, the board cannot divest itself of its own responsibility to ensure that authority is expressed appropriately throughout the congregation. I am not sure the word “transfer” is the best one to use in describing the cascading definition of authority. The senior pastor’s authority nestles within “the bowl” of the board’s authority, which it does not give away. Key areas of policy development will include defining the board’s functions, the senior pastor’s functions, and the relationship of the board to the senior pastor (71).

One aspect of Malphurs presentation that may also generate misunderstanding is his view that “the board’s primary responsibility is to monitor and hold the church to its mission” (98). It is clear in the model of board governance proposed by Carver that mission achievement is the central responsibility of the board. One aspect of this responsibility will be to monitor and assess whether or not the strategic ministry plan is in fact advancing the mission. However, monitoring is only one aspect of this large and significant portfolio. The board has to provide leadership to the church in discerning the best ways to advance the mission. Governance leadership will be future oriented as the board considers how the changing environment will affect the congregation’s ability to fulfill the mission and how in the midst of such change the board can lead the congregation to accomplish the mission. The board must not only “determine what the church is supposed to be doing — its mission — and seeing that it does it (monitoring” (98), but also works with the senior pastor to discern how it can do that and gather the resources necessary to accomplish it.

I appreciated Malphurs discussion of the pros and cons of the senior pastor serving as board chair (44-46). However, personally I think the arguments against such an arrangement are more cogent.

In the chapter on effective board meetings Malphurs does not mention the use of a consent agenda, discussion briefs or decision profiles as useful tools. I would suggest that these are helpful  tools for any chair to use in helping a board process its decisions.

The final chapter offers guidance on how to implement a policies approach (111-123). It is unclear whom Malphur is addressing in this chapter with the pronoun “you.” Does he expect the whole board to take responsibility for this initiative? Or is it the chair or the senior pastor or some other leader in the church? Clarity on this would be helpful. Whether policies governance is the best model for a small church, as he proposes, remains a matter of debate. Given the large degree of volunteer leadereship necessary to fulfill normal staff functions, the board will probably have to serve both as the official board, but also as the ministry leadership team. Malphurs recognizes that it is important for the board to know when it is operating in which mode so that there is no confusion between governance and management responsibilities. He does not, however, offer any advice on what a board might do when the senior pastor does not wish to accept the level of responsibility for church leadership that the policies governance approach requires.

Little attention is given to the role of the board chair in all of this. On pages 44-46 he discusses whether the senior pastor should serve as chair. He outlines the basic responsibilities of the chair (43). He also notes that “policy governance places the right to interpret these policies primarily in the hands of the board chairperson and anyone else to whom the board explicitly delegates responsibility” (91). Among the board policies he lists “chairperson’s role — the chairperson’s responsibilities” (93), providing a sample policy for this (133; cf. 167, 172-73, 193-94, 208-209). As helpful as these elements might be, he has little to say about the competence and skills needed by the chair, the importance of the relationship between the chair and senior pastor, or the significance of this role for developing the spiritual tone and perspective of the board so that it is engaging in “worshipful work.”

A church board chair’s potential to develop a church board as a powerful, focused ministry leadership team in the church gets little attention. If the chair does not understand that a church  board is one of the congregation’s most significant ministry teams, that it functions as the strategic leadership team in the local church, that it models and exemplifies the nature of Christian community in its relationships and worshipful service, and how the spiritual and legal dimensions of its work integrate, then the board will fail to achieve its potential.

Personally, I think the failure to identify and support the strategic role that a church board chair fills in the life of the congregation sets up church boards themselves for failure. If the board or the lead pastor does not grasp the critical role of the chair’s leadership, then it will be very difficult for that board to achieve a new level of effective ministry. Malphurs does acknowledge the work of the church board chair, but provides little elaboration or definition of the role beyond the basics. For example, nothing is said about the significant relationship that the chair and lead pastor have in the life of the congregation or the responsibility these individuals have to nurture that relationship as they lead respectively the church board team and the church ministry staff team.

I noted at the beginning Malphurs’ legitimate concern to define a model that “is based on Scripture” (8). In one sense this ends up being a kind of negative statement because he acknowledges towards the end of chapter 3 that Scripture does not mandate that churches have boards, nor does it prescribe exactly how churches should organize themselves, not even in the case of plurality of elders (35). So at the end of the day, the essential, Scripture-based principle that he espouses in his model is that congregations need wise, mature leadership. How that leadership should be expressed, defined, and implemented has considerable flexibility. He is not clear whether congregational polity fits most appropriately with biblical principles or the practices of the early church described in the New Testament. He proposes that “churches” were large and organized on a city-wide basis (32-34) which probably were led by a group of elders. Within these larger city churches were multiple house churches which “may have had several, one or no elders to lead them” (34). It is true that the New Testament does not provide us with much prescriptive direction for church organization and how to structure well authority within a congregation.

I think Scripture gives direction in regards to biblical values, the mission of the church, the Holy Spirit’s gifting and wisdom, and the expected use of common sense. So in the end, what biblical values justify the proposal for church board governance that Malphurs proposes? More work needs to be done here. Further, why does Carver’s model provide the best means by which a church can organize itself to accomplish the mission Christ has given to it? I am not sure Malphurs provides a very good argument for this — but I do think one can be mounted.

Further, Malphurs states several times that a church board has four primary functions — prayer, monitoring, deciding and advising. I do not dispute that these are important and necessary. However, apart from prayer and advising, which do have some basis in New Testament church practice (.e.g Acts 6:1-6), why are monitoring and deciding biblically appropriate board tasks?

The theology that supports the existence, functions, and spiritual operations of a church board deserves a much clearer exposition, to the extent that this can be discerned. As well, a more coherent, biblical argument that shows why policies governance is the best choice of governance model for church boards needs to be offered.

Despite some of these issues Malphurs book still offers considerable help for church board chairs considering the possibility of discussing with their board the possibility of shifting to a policies governance model.


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